After repeated requests, the Myanmar army raids rebel camps

NSCN(IM) Cadres at the outfit's headquarters Hebron Camp in Nagaland. Rajeev Bhattacharyya
16 March, 2016

After a gap of more than four years, the Myanmarese army has once again raided camps belonging to an insurgent outfit in the Northeast, forcing the rebels to vacate the area.

According to some cadres belonging to underground rebel groups in Manipur, the operation was executed some weeks ago in Somra Tract, a region adjacent to Manipur’s Ukhrul district that is inhabited by Naga tribes from the Tankhul community.

“At least two camps were destroyed and burnt by the army but there were no reports of any casualty,” they explained. “Some items like medicines, mosquito nets and whatever foodstuff were available in the camps were carried away by the army after the demolition.”

The Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM) which is active in the Northeast of India and currently engaged in peace talks with the government, also has camps and hideouts in Myanmar’s Somra Tract. Last year, there were media reports claiming that a senior functionary of the outfit, Hangshi Ramson, who is wanted by the National Investigation Agency for his involvement in the smuggling of weapons, had escaped to Myanmar. The Assam Rifles had even used a helicopter to track down Ramson.

The cadres added that there were rumours about a camp of the NSCN-K, the Khaplang faction of the NSCN, being destroyed by the army but in a location north of the NSCN-IM camps.

The split between the Isak-Muivah and Khaplang factions in the NSCN came in 1988 after a deadly clash near Hanseng in Myanmar.  Since then, the NSCN-IM has focused more on creating a support base in the Naga-inhabited areas in the Northeast, and the NSCN-K on Myanmar’s northern Sagaing Division.

The raid followed repeated pleas by the Indian government to Myanmar over the last several years to eliminate the camps and training facilities that have mushroomed in Sagaing Division, contiguous to Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur. Myanmar shares a 1643-kilometre-long porous border with India where inhabitants can cross over to the other side and travel up to a distance of 16 km under a system called the “Free Border Regime.” Many of the separatist militant groups have made their bases in the region under the assumption that there would be no danger of being evicted by the army there.

However, a government official, who asked not to be named, explained that the outcome of the raid had been far below expectation. “We would say [the attack was] all cosmetic without much damage. The camps have been eliminated, but what is the guarantee that they will not come up again? There is hardly any presence of the Myanmarese government in these territories,” he said.

The last time the Myanmarese army had swung into action against the rebels was in October 2011 when a camp of the proscribed United National Liberation Front (of Manipur) was burnt down.  I, along with a colleague and group of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) cadres were on their way to an ULFA camp in the Hukwang Valley. Following this incident, the group had to halt at a village for several days since it was considered unsafe to proceed further.  Interestingly, the then-president of Myanmar, Thein Sein, was in New Delhi on a state visit at the time.

When it comes to dealing with militant outfits in the country, the powerful Myanmarese army decides its own course of action.  These incidents, however, throw light on the attitude of Tatmadaw—Myanmar’s armed forces—towards India. The raids are unmistakable signs that its values the friendship with New Delhi, but only to the extent that its interests are not harmed.  It knows that it lacks resources for a full-scale offensive against the rebels in Sagaing division. It would not prefer to open another hostile front with the Nagas when a war is already on in Shan State and when there are disturbances in Arakan and Kachin.

As many as 60 big and small camps and hideouts still exist in Myanmar, especially in northern Sagaing Division bordering Kachin, which was evident after I visited the region several times between 2008–12. These facilities belong to the NSCN-K, which had abrogated the ceasefire with the Indian government last year and its allies, including the anti-talks factions of the ULFA and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and six Meitei groups from Manipur. Last year, four of these outfits had floated the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia under the leadership of NSCN-K, to achieve “united and total struggle.”

Besides NSCN-IM, other over ground insurgent outfits in the Northeast, such as the Zomi Revolutionary Army and the Kuki National Army also have hideouts in Myanmar. Soon after the twin ambushes in Nagaland and Manipur last year by the rebels that resulted in the killing of 26 soldiers from the Indian army and paramilitary, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval had made a case before the Myanmar government for immediate action against the bases.  Assurances were reportedly given to the Indian delegation, but no action was taken.

It is important to note that the Myanmarese army had concluded a written agreement with the NSCN-K on 9 April 2012. Delegates from the Naga group had also attended meetings at Yangon with government representatives on several occasions last year ahead of the general elections for the nationwide ceasefire agreement. The NSCN-K, however, backed out from the discussion at the eleventh hour, without signing the ceasefire.